“Check out that view,” Johnny said. “Many Bombay locals have never seen this place, even though it’s right on their doorstep.”
But I was already absorbed in the breathtaking scenery gliding past my window on the southbound Western Railway train. We were crossing the Ulhas River at the point where it feeds in to the Arabian Sea. The turgid murky waters of the estuary stretched out beneath us, bordered by green marshlands and, beyond that, palm fronds. The train passed over Panju Island, home to a monsoon-lashed fishing community. And overhead was the Wild Blue, strewn with lumbering rain clouds.
“Looks like ‘Nam,” Johnny suggested. And indeed it seemed as if we were crossing an isolated section of the Mekong rather than rolling in to one of the world’s most populous cities.
I had recently moved to Mumbai from Seoul, South Korea at the invitation of my high-school friend Johnny, a former non-resident Indian who decided this year to move back to his passport country. We had grown up together in an international boarding school in Tamil Nadu, but for both of us Mumbai was a completely new environment. Johnny, whose family hails from Bangalore, spent most of his formative years in Oman, Dubai and the United States. I, meanwhile, had divided up the ten years since leaving school mainly between China and my home country, the United Kingdom.
Johnny’s decision to move back to his homeland initially came as a shock to me. He’d grown up an expat and had found his spiritual home in New York. But latterly he’d been making a living as a design entrepreneur in Dubai where he’d begun to suffer from a sense of creative ennui. He’d been comfortable there but bemoaned a lack of culture. Looking for inspiration and a new set of challenges he decided to move to Mumbai, the famed ‘Gateway to India,’ theorizing that “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” India is a country beginning to assert itself on the world stage, he reflected, and Mumbai is one of the key economic powerhouses behind its growth. “It feels like a city that is gaining relevance in the modern world,” he said.
At the time I was travelling around as a freelance writer and decided to join Johnny in Mumbai more or less on a whim. For me, the opportunity to get under the skin of a city like Mumbai with an old high school buddy was too good to miss.
Due to a lack of forethought and the difficulty of securing a downtown apartment at short notice, the two of us began ‘Mumbai life’ not in the city itself but in the suburban town of Vasai, which lies to the north, cut off from the sprawling financial capital by the Ulhas River. A mosquito-ridden frontier town much disparaged and ridiculed by our friends in the more upmarket parts of South Mumbai. When people heard about our living arrangements their response would usually be: “You’re staying where?” (Meant as an exclamation rather than a request for clarification) Eyebrows were raised; jaws were dropped. Invariably the follow-up question would be something like: “Why on earth would you live there?”
But in many ways there is no better vantage point from which to observe a vast, manic, all-encompassing city like Mumbai than its outskirts.
On a typical day we’d spend the afternoon hitting up the trendy cafes of Bandra, Lower Parel and Churchgate, and the evening would be taken up shooting the breeze with Mumbai’s new generation of creatives and entertainers – fledgling actors, film producers, models, and TV anchors. But after midnight we’d head back to our humble suburban dwelling, an hour’s train ride away, winding through the less presentable parts of the city – festering shanty-towns and dystopian chawls – and skimming the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a broad swathe of protected jungle inhabited by leopards.
While the majority of our friends scooted around the city in cabs or private cars with hired drivers, Johnny and I battled our way through the city’s notorious railway system. Some of those friends had never even set foot in those over-stuffed trains, which during peak hours bulge at the open doors with an overflow of commuters. Although the two of us had the relative luxury of being able to avoid the rush hour, the daily train journey gave us a window into the reality of millions of people living in the outer reaches of the city.
The crammed carriages presented a microcosm of Mumbai life, encompassing the quirky and the prosaic – white-collar workers watching TV dramas on their smart-phones; dabbawalas carrying their tiffins; carriage-hopping hijras bestowing blessings in exchange for donations; university students clutching dog-eared textbooks; cancer research fundraisers rattling coin buckets; Muslim clerics and turbaned Sikhs dozing shoulder to shoulder; an off-duty policeman smugly cradling his walkie-talkie; a decrepit vagrant swaying precariously on his walking stick by the open door; and a businessman with a briefcase full of calling cards cleaning his ears with a cotton bud which he kept in his breast pocket.
There seemed to be little regard for human life on the railway, which reportedly racked up an average of 17 fatalities every weekday during 2008. One night when we disembarked from the train we encountered a corpse on the platform, draped in a white cloth and bleeding profusely from a head wound. The macabre sight failed to elicit any kind of reaction from the other passengers, who carried on without batting an eyelid.
We lived in a grim housing block beguilingly called ‘Evershine City,’ but which we affectionately referred to as ‘The Heart of Darkness’. It was located on the eastern edge of Vasai where a wide expanse of fetid flyblown water had emerged in the monsoon. Crumbling drab high-rises loomed apocalyptic on the brink of the flood-water. Urinating rickshaw drivers lined up at the water’s edge, backs to the road, like condemned men before a firing squad.
The nearest train station was a fifteen minute auto-rickshaw ride away. We would normally take a shared auto for Rs15 a head. Even at midnight the queue for the auto stand snaked a good twenty meters down the road, usually under streaming umbrellas. The autos buzzed through the ceaseless monsoon downpours with windscreen wipers flicking like deranged metronomes, while passengers huddled four to a vehicle behind musty canvas rain covers.
Our apartment consisted of a spartan living room, in which we slept on the floor, a kitchen, a squat toilet, and a shower-less washroom with a hole in the wall through which a jet of water inexplicably gushed at precisely six o’clock every morning. We took bucket baths, relishing the small luxury of hot water, until the socket powering the water heater exploded, nearly electrocuting me in the process.
Power cuts were a daily occurrence, making a backup battery essential. Unfortunately our battery gave up after a few weeks, going the way of almost every other piece of electrical equipment in the place. The rented air-conditioning unit would only work in short bursts before overheating, and the impotent ceiling fan served only to circulate the air in warm currents. We frequently had repairmen over but communication was limited to a mixture of Hinglish and hand gestures, and the repairs were always short-lived.
We slept with the windows and balcony door wide open to encourage a cool through-breeze. This meant we had to smother ourselves in mosquito-repellent before going to sleep, to ward off dengue fever. It also meant that the insect-eating geckoes that scurried over the walls were valuable allies.
We lacked many of the comforts and conveniences which our South Mumbai friends took for granted. But one thing we had, which most people living in urban areas can only dream of, was a covered balcony with a surface area nearly equal to all the rooms put together. On lazy evenings we would sit out there eating ordered-in biryani and chicken-65, while pigeons foraged among the potted plants for nest material. And the air would resound with the tinkling bells of worshippers performing puja at a nearby shrine and the ancient sonorous notes of a conch being blown by our neighbour to greet the coming dusk.
Living in Vasai presented us with countless challenges, not least because we lacked local knowledge and Hindi proficiency. It was largely through trial and error that we navigated the local bureaucracy. But our stay was made easier by the kindness of a family living on the floor below us. The father was a teacher and the mother was a full-time housewife. They had a daughter in high school and a son who was preparing for a university entrance exam with the aim of studying aeronautical engineering. They were a genuine salt-of-the-earth family who had lived for several years in a chawl before upgrading to the modest but well-furnished apartment in which they now resided. Their home was always open to us and they went out of their way to offer help when we ran into difficulties.
Eventually our time in Vasai came to an end, but not before we had managed to upset the local Establishment. During our stay in Evershine we had been forever trying to evade the watchful eye of The Society – the Gestapo-like administrative body overseeing our complex – which had decreed that apartments should not be leased to bachelors. We tried to keep a low profile in the neighbourhood (although we stood out like sore thumbs, of course), and we’d sneak past the sleeping guard at night, trying not to rattle the gate. But one night I was apprehended by the watchman, who was unusually awake thanks to the persistent drumming of a Ganpati Festival street parade. He interrogated me in Hindi and I performed the traveller’s equivalent of ‘playing dead’ – shrugging my shoulders and idiotically babbling in Pidgin English, hoping he’d leave me alone. Unfortunately this time-worn strategy failed and the guy insisted on following me all the way back to the apartment, waiting until I had gone inside so that he could take note of where I was living, before returning to his post. This could only spell trouble, but fortunately we had already made arrangements to move to Churchgate and we were out of there in the next couple of days.
Churchgate – another world. Here we got used to sleeping on proper mattresses, having hot showers, and even having domestic servants to cook, tidy up and do our laundry for us. Having access to these luxuries after the stripped-down existence in Vasai made us feel like maharajas. Mumbai has often been described as a city of contrasts, where the haves and have-nots exist in startling proximity. By starting in the outer suburbs and moving to the economic centre I was better able to appreciate the scale of the socio-economic divide than if I had spent the whole time in the central areas. In Vasai I felt privileged to the point of embarrassment (although I am by no means wealthy relative to the average per capita income in my home country). Yet, in Churchgate, surrounded by chic well-heeled urbanites, I sometimes felt like a pauper.
Vasai had been a good initiation into Mumbai, a city in which tremendous opportunities are available to those who can afford to take them, but where, for the majority, social mobility – and indeed mere survival – requires an epic struggle.